An Approaching Swarm?
Linking Land Use and Locusts

locusts swarm agriculture yale study
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In a recently published study, scientists found that soils depleted by overgrazing triggered an unusual surge in locust populations in China. Paradoxically, the scientists found, lower nitrogen levels had actually helped the locusts thrive.
 
This week, the National Science Foundation awarded $955,000 to six researchers — including Eli Fenichel of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — to study whether this phenomenon is also affecting locust species in Australia and Senegal, and how it might ultimately affect food security in locations worldwide.
 
When locusts reach high population densities, they transform into a more gregarious phenotype, developing characteristics that make them capable of migrating as far as 400 kilometers in a single day, according to Arianne Cease, a physiological ecologist at Arizona State University and the University of Sydney and one of the scientists involved in this research.
 
Locust outbreaks can devastate agricultural yields and food security. In Madagascar this year, locust swarms have infested more than half of all cultivated land and pasture, destroying more than a quarter of the nation’s food crops.
It seems possible that short-sighted environmental management may cause future damage to a community’s economic resources, and also crises for neighboring communities.
— Eli Fenichel
According to Fenichel, who researches bio-economics at F&ES, one of the more critical findings from this new research is that the effects of soil depletion in one region can be exported to other locations. “Locusts can travel really far and decimate other rangelands, pushing those rangelands toward a tipping point and decimating crops,” he said.
 
Using mathematical modeling, Fenichel will attempt to determine how the different property rights regimes and land ownership traditions in China, Australia, and Senegal affect a society’s capacity to adapt to this phenomenon and how livestock markets might help predict, mediate or exacerbate the problem.
 
“It is commonly believed that people don’t have incentives to care for things that are ‘owned’ collectively,” Fenichel said. “However, with what we are learning about locusts, it seems possible that short-sighted environmental management may cause future damage to a community’s economic resources, and also crises for neighboring communities. So the more we learn about these systems, the more it seems that we can turn the study of ecology into a direct cost/benefit for society as a whole.”
 
The research project, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, is expected to yield sustainable strategies to understand and manage locust outbreaks.
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
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PUBLISHED: October 2, 2013
 

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